Less than two months after a state agency issued a finding that Macon’s Cirrus Academy was not in compliance with regulations for special education students, one of the teachers who filed the complaint that sparked the probe has filed a civil rights lawsuit.
The suit, filed by special education teacher Diana R. Humble, names Cirrus Education Group Inc. as the sole defendant.
Humble alleges she suffered pay discrimination, harassment and physical threats because of her race and was retaliated against after she reported concerns about the school to the Georgia Department of Education.
“We believe that the complaint filed yesterday largely speaks for itself,” Ken Barton, Humble’s attorney, said in an emailed statement. “Ms. Humble was subjected to treatment at Cirrus Academy that no employee should experience and that was completely inappropriate under the law. However, while the discrimination claims will likely attract the most attention, Ms. Humble’s whistle-blower claim is equally important to her.”
Cirrus CEO Ashanti Johnson referred comment to the school’s lawyers Friday.
Lawyer Buddy Welch later issued a statement saying, “It is the Academy’s position that Ms. Humble does not have a legally enforceable claim against the Academy. We look forward to defending this matter on behalf of the Academy.”
He declined further comment, citing the pending litigation.
Humble was hired at the Pio Nono Avenue charter school in July 2016 and was one of about seven white employees at the beginning of the 2016 school year. The majority of the administration, faculty and staff at the charter school is black — including all of Humble’s supervisors, according to the lawsuit.
Soon after her hiring, Humble began raising concerns with her supervisors about the school’s compliance with state and federal requirements for special education. She later reported her concerns to the Georgia Department of Education.
In January, Humble and two other educators filed a third-party complaint with the education department under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, raising concerns about the school’s special education program.
The educators expressed concerns that services and plans listed in students’ individualized education programs weren’t being followed.
Allegedly, special needs students weren’t receiving proper instruction, speech services were not being provided to all students who needed them and classroom accommodations and staffing were inadequate.
“Through its own failure to act, Cirrus Academy has now exposed itself to liability, not only for its treatment of Ms. Humble, but potentially to a number of parents of students who receive those important services,” Barton said.
The Georgia Department of Education issued a determination April 4 that the school was not in compliance with regulations.
The state’s report said, “The record is clear that all students with disabilities at Cirrus did not receive all their special education and related services for the first semester.”
The report noted there wasn’t enough staff to implement the required services.
Cirrus has said additional special education employees have been added since the complaint was filed.
The school, which first opened in August 2016, is offering makeup services to students in the form of Saturday classes and summer school.
The state gave Cirrus an Aug. 18 deadline for administrators and special education teachers to be trained on revised policies for implementing individualized education programs. All compensatory learning services should be finished by Dec. 22.
In her lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Humble alleges her supervisors threatened her and warned her not to contact the state agency and that the “hostility and retaliation” she had already experienced at the school increased.
According to the lawsuit:
Humble alleges she and two other white educators received “the brunt” of the disparate treatment, harassment and retaliation while being treated differently than black teachers and employees.
Unlike other teachers, Humble and another white educator were provided little to no start-up furniture or supplies for their classrooms, Humble initially didn’t have a planning period and Humble was assigned many additional assignments other than the duties assigned to her position.
Humble and two other white educators were “written up” for actions considered acceptable when done by their black co-workers, Humble argues.
Humble contends Jackson, the school’s superintendent, “largely ignored” and stopped speaking to her in November. Jackson is black.
Comparing her salary to figures the school provided to the Georgia Department of Education, Humble alleges her annual salary was $5,000 to $10,000 less than black employees at the school in similar positions who had less experience, education or certifications.
In November, Humble began receiving “frequent anonymous” text messages “littered with profanity, racial epithets” and threats of physical violence. The two other white educators received similar messages.
While the identity of the message sender remains unknown, the content and pictures in the messages indicate they were sent by a Cirrus Academy employee.
In late December, Humble received an email “which appeared to be from” Jackson that suggested she resign and not “underestimate” her “power and abilities,” she alleges.
Humble contends the school asked the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the messages but failed to take prompt and “appropriate corrective action” to stop the harassment.
Due to harassment, threats of physical violence and medical advice Humble has been on unpaid leave since January 2017.
She filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Jan. 26.
Humble is seeking $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, plus other damages in the form of front pay that would include pay raises, the value of benefits and other compensation.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.